Amanda Palmer Tackles The Long Walk To Abortion In "A Voicemail For Jill"

Photo: Courtesy of Kahn and Selesnick.
Amanda Palmer has been famous for her unabashed honesty and boldness throughout her nearly two decades-long career, but her forthcoming album, There Will Be No Intermission, is likely her most vulnerable yet. The former Dresden Dolls singer addresses miscarriage, cancer, grief, and the darker sides of parenthood in her third solo LP — and notably abortion, which is framed as a heartfelt message for a friend in “A Voicemail For Jill,” which was released last month.
The new video for the single, directed by Amber Sealy and debuting exclusively on Refinery29, follows a woman on her way to her abortion appointment. During her journey, she is triggered by the things she sees along the way, and finds small moments of comfort in the knowing eyes of the older women she passes. “They may be traveling alone to the appointment, but energetically there are millions of women who support them and don't judge them and have felt what they are feeling,” said Sealy of the visual, who Palmer is adamant is the only person who could have given this project the respect and sensitivity it deserved.
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Refinery29 spoke to Palmer about how she finally found the words to articulate such a complex and delicate subject through songwriting and film, as well as the infectious nature of honesty.
Refinery29: You’ve said you’ve been wanting to write this song for a long time. Why did this feel like the right time to release it?
Amanda Palmer: “Trying to write about abortion is one of the most difficult things I’ve tackled, and I’ve been trying since my early twenties, because I had my first abortion when I was 17. I’m a songwriter who’s always been interested in challenging myself to write about the truth — especially the truth of what it is like to experience life as a woman right now. It was such a difficult topic to approach because I couldn’t understand how you could talk abortion and not get it wrong. I just couldn’t find a way in, and it’s such a difficult thing to write about without being too sentimental, or too preachy, or too heavy-handed, or too oblique. I wrote two really darkly comic, satirical songs about it in my twenties because that’s the only door I could find that would open in terms of this subject matter.”
What was the catalyst?
“It wasn’t until I went to Dublin and happened to be there during the referendum that I actually was catalysed to really put a gun to my own head and sit down and write this song. I was so privileged standing next to these women who had basically laid down their lives to get this legislation passed. And all of a sudden, women just started spilling their stories. I felt like I wanted to do something to honour them. I came back from Dublin and I wrote this song about a week later. Simultaneously, I was looking back at America and thinking, ‘Oh my god, we are in serious fucking trouble.’ Because we’re backsliding.”
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How did you decide on the right way to present the visual?
“There was no way that this video could be anything other than a very direct, empathetic exercise — to actually try or understand what it feels like outside of all the political screaming and yelling, outside the theoretical. To actually understand what it feels like to wake up in the morning and go to your abortion appointment. Because that’s what people forget in all of the semantics. When you’re walking to your abortion appointment and you see a single baby shoe on the sidewalk, that baby shoe screams at you. Whether or not you feel very confident in your decision, all of the symbols of motherhood, childhood, infertility and religion — you see them all through a different filter. The same thing happens when you’re pregnant and you’re keeping the baby. And the same thing happens when you lose a grown child — everything speaks to you differently.
“And as someone who has been pregnant and terrified, and also as someone who’s been pregnant and ambivalent, and as someone who has been pregnant and insanely happy, and I’ve had all three of those experiences — you’re human emotions and you go through a very special kind of wringer. And that’s what I wanted the video to be about. I didn’t want it to be a political battlecry: I wanted it to be an exercise in empathy. Something that anybody could understand, no matter what your politics. ”
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What has the response to the song been like?
“I had some expectations, but what I wasn’t expecting was the reactions from people who had been secretly sitting on an abortion story for 20 years, saying “Your song has moved me to action and I’m finally going to start talking about my abortion.” A lot of my friends are older women who had lonely, unspoken abortion experiences and who are finally telling their parents, telling their children, telling their partners, or telling their communities. And I think that’s actually the most powerful thing that this song has been able to do — pull those women out of hiding.”
How do you hope this song is used as a source of comfort for those who need it?
“This may wind up being the most pragmatic, practical song I’ve ever written. And not anticipating that, I had a close friend shortly after I recorded a demo for the song, whose partner was heading to get an abortion. I sent it to them. I got to actually feel something that a musician doesn’t get to feel very often, which is practically useful. We [musicians] live in a pretty ephemeral world — we don’t get to perform heart surgery and get to see the relief on the faces of families in the waiting room. Our work is weird. So when you’re able to create a song like that, and a video like that, for me, it lives in a world outside of Billboard charts and music criticism. When it comes to things like this, that shit just does not matter. What matters is that i can take this and send it to my friend’s friend and she can send me a text saying that it really truly helped her.”
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How do you find the courage to be so honest in your songwriting? How do you encourage others to do the same?
“I think because the alternative is more unbearable. I’ve always used songwriting very therapeutically and this last era was no exception, but I also was really fortunate to cross paths with some other performers and artists who literally challenged and galvanised me. And one of them was Hannah Gadsby, whose show I got to see in London. And another one of those experiences was seeing Nick Cave and watching him craft and deliver an offering of art and film after his son died. It was so totally raw and vulnerable, especially coming from a person who was so cool and poised like Nick Cave. And in watching them and watching all the women standing up against Weinstein and Bill Cosby, it felt like dominoes were falling around me. Given the narrative that we’re up against, like Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh versus Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, it’s not a good time to wait. Things are too dangerous, so if you were ever going to stand up and [speak truthfully], now’s a pretty good time. And all of those things have inspired me to be less afraid.”
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
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